Meet the Inulas

Elecampane near Oldwalls (Inula helenium)

Elecampane (Inula helenium) near Oldwalls. Photo: Mr. Edible.

This is a gratuitous opportunity to show off a nice picture of a persistently interesting plant. Prof. Edible spotted them when speeding past the now green walls of the roadside Gower hedges.  I’m developing a talent for loosely identifying wildflowers while I hurtling passed in the car.   ‘There!’  I will be instructed on a return visit, often when I’m negotiating the narrow, quick lanes in the middle of a grockle convoy of roof-racked surfboards and well-girthed caravans.

Fortunately, its shock-eyed flower and stately form made it immediately recognisable.  Elecampane  (Inula helenium) is like some cherished acquaintance that one is always glad to come across: fascinating to know, with a colourful history and a striking appearance; but brings up more questions than is answered.  Who?  Where?  Why?

Originally native of central Asia when it came to Britain gardens is open to guesswork except it was earlier than I get up in the morning, in other words at or before the mediaeval period (and believe me I’m pretty mediaeval in the mornings – ouch, I must be channelling a cheap gag writer.).    Why?  This can be guessed from its long reputation as a medicinal plant.  The well-established plants we’ve spotted at two locations on the Gower are probably remnants of now eradicated old cottagers’ gardens where it would have been grown for themselves or their animals – the seeds may have been blown along the roads by the petrol-fuelled vortexes of modern times.   Arguably these eye-catching flowers are one of the most authentic aspects of nearby villages with their now converted cottages and part-time holiday homes.

“Edible Swansea”?

Some fifty years ago the candy was sold commonly in London, as

flat, round cakes, being composed largely of sugar, and coloured

with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for

asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling

by a river to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exhalations

and bad air. The candy may be still had from our confectioners,

but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is

of barley in barley sugar.

(‘Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure’, William Thomas Fernie 1879.)

Elecampane rock (candy) has not survived in the ‘confectioners’ but a medicinal cousin has;  ‘Coltsfoot rock‘ (Tussilago farfara)  can be had on one of the gaudy sweet stalls in Swansea Market.  Also traditionally associate with chest complaints I recently came across the distinctive leaves of this native spring-flowering wildflower, running wild an old local garden – but this is another story…

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